Photo credit: complex.com
After Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual, Olympic swimming medal, almost every sports medium emphasized in their headlines or in their social media captions, “first African American.” Many fans commented their discontent about the need to state those three words, making the point that it’s not about race but about American athletes well-representing the United States and winning gold medals for their country.
However, if all Americans acknowledge that there was a time when African Americans weren’t counted as equal citizens like white Americans and afforded the opportunity to participate in certain sports at the highest level, then everyone would understand the need to emphasize “first African American.”
Although this article focuses on the importance of African Americans being recognized as the first to accomplish milestones in their respective sports, the same applies for any other minority group, whether it’s in sports, business, television and film, or many other genres of life. Even though progressions have been made, the struggles for people of color in the aforementioned industries are still quite obvious. If all Americans were afforded equal opportunities and resources since the birth of America, every time anyone accomplished something that previously hadn’t been done, the news caption would likely always read, “first American, first American male or first American female.” The need to specify gender is a topic for another day.
It’s unfortunate that instead of embracing differences of American citizens, those differences have been exploited for many generations. News and sports mediums shouldn’t have to distinguish anyone’s race when he or she accomplishes a milestone in his or her particular industry, but that’s where this country stands. If there’s racial division on the macro level, then the same will manifest itself on the micro level.
Regarding Simone Manuel becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual, Olympic swimming medal – a gold medal to be exact – there was a time when public pools were segregated and African Americans weren’t permitted to swim with white Americans. Blacks weren’t treated as equals and were excluded from American history for a long time.
So, to go from not being allowed to swim with white Americans to competing and winning a gold medal for a country that formerly excluded African Americans from American history calls for the use of the phrase “first African-American.” Furthermore, when it comes to predominantly white sports such as swimming, golf, soccer and tennis, blacks competing and winning at a high level in those sports has been unheard of predating athletes such as the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, Simone Manuel and others.
Another reason why Manuel being the first African American to win an individual, Olympic medal for swimming is such a great accomplishment is because many African Americans can’t swim. One reason is due to the lack of resources. Pools aren’t easily accessible in inner cities, and if they are, many black families can’t afford to pay for swimming lessons. More often than not, if the parents can’t swim then the children won’t know how to swim either. However, more African-American youth are beginning to learn how to swim even if their parents don’t.
That being said, Manuel didn’t just make history but she possibly changed how people of color view the sport of swimming. Besides the Olympics, swimming is rarely – if at all – televised for African-American youth to see someone who looks like them participating in and experiencing success in a sport other than basketball, football and track & field. Manuel has essentially put swimming on the radar of the African-American community. So, to answer the question of why race matters, it matters historically, socially and psychologically.